John Townsend (1732–1809), one of the greatest of all eighteenth-century American craftsmen, was born in Newport, Rhode Island, into a family of Quaker cabinetmakers. The seaport, second only to Boston among New England cities, was the center of a thriving furniture industry dominated by two intermarried Quaker families, the Townsends and the Goddards. John was the fourth child of Christopher Townsend (1701–1773), and presumably it was to his father that he was apprenticed. At any rate, judging from an exquisitely fashioned dining table he signed in 1756, he was an accomplished craftsman by the age of twenty-four. The table was but the first of some thirty-five pieces that, between 1756 and 1800, he would sign or label and date. Among his peers, he was unique in habitually signing and dating his finest work. The resulting body of documented pieces illustrates the characteristics of his personal idiom, a highly refined and elegant version of Newport’s distinctive local furniture style. Aside from his work, little is known of John’s life. He served in various public capacities, including surveyor of highways and treasurer of the city of Newport. In 1767, he married Phila Feke, daughter of the portrait painter Robert Feke.
Townsend’s earliest known pieces, starting with the 1756 dining table, have beautifully proportioned and assuredly executed cabriole legs and claw-and-ball feet; on a card table of 1762, the knees are ornamented with an elegant, stylized version of leaf carving. The upper part has incised or intaglio carving, while the lower part, a separate anthemion-like frond, is carved in relief. In about 1765, Townsend introduced the signature design of Newport case furniture: the block and shell. Block-front chests and desks, pieces whose solid wood drawer fronts are sawn out with projecting sections or blocks at either side and a recessed section in the middle, had been popular in Boston, New England’s leading city, since about 1740. Some twenty-five years later, in Newport, large carved boldly lobed shells were applied to these blockings as a way to terminate them and give dramatic visual focus to the piece. A four-drawer block-and-shell chest (27.57.1) bears a paper label on which is inscribed, in ink in an elegant copperplate hand, “Made by/John Townsend/Rhode Island/1765.” Two virtually identical chests, but bearing printed paper labels inscribed “Made by/John Townsend,/ Newport” with the dates 1790 and 1792, are also known, and demonstrate that Townsend’s chests in this style remained in fashion for fully a quarter of a century. A tall clock (27.57.2) (the eighteenth-century term for what is popularly known as a grandfather clock today) that descended in the same family as the 1765 chest and boasts a superbly carved block-and-shell door also bears John’s printed label and the date 1789. Except for a different motif within the diminutive central C scroll, the 1765 and 1789 shells are identical. Although unsigned, a group of bureau tables (for example, 10.125.83)—today popularly called “kneehole chests”—exhibit all the brilliance of John Townsend’s best work.
In addition to the block-and-shell furniture for which he is best known, Townsend specialized in the manufacture of straight-legged tables. Beginning about 1785, he crafted numerous tables with square, stop-fluted legs: mostly card tables with folding tops and a swing leg (27.161); and Pembroke tables with two drop leaves. The tables are distinctive for their perfect proportions and machinelike precision of execution. Around 1794, Townsend began making his line of tables in the new Neoclassical, or Federal, style, featuring tapered legs inlaid with simple bellflower- or carrot-shaped lightwood decoration (1980.293). Although now based upon New York models, these tables have all the construction features of Townsend’s earlier work.